Originally published in Cape May Magazine, July 2006. Photographs by Erin Kirk and Sara Kornacki
Cape May has some of the best beaches in the world. Yup, in the world.
Now before you start rattling off some exotic names from far-off places, think about it: when it comes to accessibility, enjoyability, affordability, agreeability, hard-body visibility, gastro-diversity and eco-activity, Cape May is tops. Truly.
No need for a boat or plane to get to Cape May’s beaches. Sure, everyone wants to visit Maui, or St. John, or San Tropez, but do you have an extra five grand for transportation? Beach tag fees are reasonable on Cape Island and the water is some of the cleanest around. It’s safe, well-kept and the businesses are locally-owned. There’s fishing, boating, swimming, eating, drinking, partying, and yada yada yada. Shall I continue? I think not.
But while the peripherals – the great restaurants, the historic architecture, the cool vibe –are added bonuses that can keep you occupied throughout the year, it’s the beaches – from Lower Township through Cape May Point and up to Poverty Beach – that are the jewels in the Cape Island crown.
Cape Island is a hoof-shaped spit of land at the southern tip of New Jersey. The Delaware Bay laps the western edge of the island, Cape May City fronts the Atlantic on the southeastern side and the Cape May Canal, built around the time of World War II, cuts the island off from the rest of the mainland on the northside. And in that ten or so square miles of peninsula are beaches as divine and diverse as any coastal area in the states. Let’s start on the bayside.
Higbee Wildlife Management Area
Higbee Beach is a wildlife management area owned by the state. It’s wild, there are no lifeguards or bathrooms, and it can practically disappear at high-tide. But it’s a great place to get away from the madding crowd and let the dog run loose.
To get there, turn left onto New England Road just before you cross the canal bridge on Seashore Road. Follow New England Road, and please drive slowly as there are kids about and besides, there’s some great open space that commands a slow look. The road dead-ends into the tree-lined and pothole-riddled parking lot.
Higbee is a great place to take your dog. The beach is bounded by wild dunes covered in native New Jersey scrub bushes like bayberry, Ragusa roses and low pine. But as for amenities, there are none. I think there’s a port-a-john out there but I’ve never used it. And whatever you do, don’t go swimming in the water and for heaven’s sake, don’t go diving around out there. The remains of former industries and people’s past lives are close below the surface out at Higbee and you could easily swim into the remains of someone’s chimney or an old dock or something. With no lifeguards and submerged hazards Higbee’s is not the best swimming beach on the island.
You should also know that Higbee has a, um, colorful, reputation. It’s not a common occurrence, but occasionally someone is arrested on the beach for the crime of being naked. Nudists are drawn there like moths to a flame and some have taken their fight to the courts, attempting to lobby the powers that be to let them do their thing. But alas, going au natural at Higbee remains a crime and the undercover officers (no pun intended) there will make you put your clothes on. They’ll probably ticket you and if you give them cause they’ll arrest you. The rules are fewer at Higbee but don’t go nude.
Here’s the skinny. It’s a great bike ride out to the beach if you’re in the mood. It’s a couple mile ride from Cape May but it’s enjoyable (I suggest the Bayshore route). Get there and let the dog run without a leash but be prepared to meet other unleashed dogs. Expect skeeters and pee before you go there. Marvel at the rugged shoreline and watch the Cape May Lewes Ferry as it steams into port. Contemplate the mystery of the South Voodoo Tree (look for it, you’ll see it). If you go into the woods, check yourself for ticks when you leave.
Adjacent to Higbee (yet a several mile trek by Bayshore Road) is Sunset Beach in Lower Township. Sunset Beach, as you might guess offers great sunsets every night and is a favorite spot for families and people who simply want to park free and park very close to the beach. There’s a nearby gift shop and the Sunset Grill offers beach fare al fresco.
“I love their crabcake sandwich,” said Jane Ashburn of Lumberville, Pa.
Sunset is a cute spot to sit (there are benches) or stare (there are coin-operated binoculars), fly a kite or take pictures. If you want photos of the S.S. Atlantus, the experimental concrete ship resting offshore (locals simply refer to it as the Concrete Ship), get there quickly, the ocean is claiming its hulking remains. And the nightly flag-lowering ceremony is stirring.
“Sunset is my favorite,” said Jane, who claims to be 70 but looks closer to 55. “I’ve been coming here all my life. I love the guy that makes everybody get up at the end of the day and salute. It’s old-fashioned, it’s patriotic and we need that.”
You might find Cape May Diamonds at Sunset, but you need to know what you’re looking for. There are no lifeguards, the sand is a little rough and it’s not one of the sexier beaches on the island, but it’s worth a look.
“My sister and I always come to Sunset,” said Alyisa Mercaldo, 20, of Green Creek. “It’s just where we like to be. I like to look for diamonds.”
A fun and easy bike ride down Sunset Boulevard to Sunset Beach should be on your list of things to do. Look for Fire Control Tower #23 in the scrub and take a tour.
Cape May Point beach
Cape May Point
I love the point. Quaint, quiet, 99.9 percent residential, unassuming, independent, close-knit and fun loving, “The Point” is a unique spot. It reminds me of some remote seaside outpost; constantly battling with a furious ocean intent on devouring the beaches and driving residents further inland. But Point residents, all six of them (I kid), are fiercely independent and sweep the sand out of the streets every spring and carry on.
The Point, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, has been refurbishing its entire stretch of beach for several years. As a result, the beaches are wider and flatter than they’ve been in years. It’s a much mellower vibe than Cape May City and the beach patrol are a fun, friendly and professional bunch.
“I’m not sure I should tell you about my favorite spot,” said Jen Kopp of Lower Township. “But I like St. Peter’s in the Point. It’s quiet, there’s free parking – it’s my secret spot.”
Not much in the way of amenities in the point and that’s the way they like it out there. Pack a lunch and understand that facilities are very limited.
Cape May Point State Park
Cape May Point state park
A beach replenishment project meant that the park had to add new walkways across the dunes in the park. And a much-debated effort to rid the area of invasive phragmites has cleared large tracts of the park of the unsightly reeds and opened new vistas that haven’t been seen in awhile.
The concrete bunker now sits on dry land thanks to untold tons of sand pumped onto the beach. The beach is free but swimming is still prohibited due to underwater hazards, like railroad tracks and the remnants of World War II gun batteries.
The park is a great place to see dolphins and a walk east toward Cape May is an energizing stroll through the William and Jane Blair bird refuge. There are great facilities at the park as well as rangers. The park is also home to the world famous Cape May Lighthouse and hawk watching platform. It’s a nice place to bird watch or people watch and has picnic and grilling facilities. The clean bathrooms alone are worth the price of admission, which is free.
City Of Cape May
The City of Cape May has the kind of beaches that the Jersey Shore is famous for: lots of bikinis, plenty of nearby bars, restaurants and shopping, and a long history of beach culture. The nuances of each beach require years of study to fully appreciate. Cape May beaches – the slope, the size, the crowd, the waves – change from year to year. But the surf, sand and sun are the constants that have attracted people from far and wide for centuries.
Cape May requires beach tags and has more rules than other beaches on the island. Go to capemaycity.org for a complete schedule of beach times, guard schedules, fees and ordinances. Locals mix with tourists on all the beaches although lots of people tend to return to the same spot throughout a summer season. Don’t worry about anything, just layout your blanket and chill.
The Cove is the king of the Cape May beaches. The gentle slope has made the Cove a family-friendly spot recently and the surfing there is always popular. The Cove is an ever-changing place and the shape of the beach changes from year to year. Some folks think it’s getting a little crowded, but the view is spectacular and the flag lowering ceremony is inspirational. Good sand too. Weekend weddings can be a nuisance, but it’s still a happening spot. Locals – the ones who have a free moment in the summer – often arrive after 5.
Grant Street Beach and CMBP headquarters
“The Cove is my favorite spot, hands down,” said Sue Lotozo, owner of the Flying Fish Studio on Park Boulevard in West Cape May, and a local beach connoisseur. “I like to get there after four when everyone’s leaving and stay until the last shred of daylight is gone from the sky. I like the way it’s ever-changing. One year there’s a giant tide pool and the next there’s an exposed jetty.”
The Cove is a laid-back place.
I like the community of surfers at the Cove,” added Sue. “It’s a nice long ride heading’ down toward the lighthouse. There are a lot of regulars there, just a wide range of people. You wind up getting to know these people just because you like to surf the Cove.
And the Cove offers plenty of natural attractions as well. Sue describes her walks along the water edge as a “science experiment.”
“You can find all kinds of unusual beach artifacts. It’s not groomed and it’s very natural,” said Sue.
As you move east (or north, depending on whom you’re talking to) Broadway is next. Broadway is the beginning of what’s locally regarded as the locals’ beaches. A lot of the West Cape May kids follow Broadway right to the beach. The locals all know that Broadway is where the younger kids hang. The unspoken pecking order that rules adolescent life ensures that the local grade and middle-schoolers have their own space at Broadway.
But Broadway also attracts a diverse crowd, including long-timers like Dan Anderson, 60, who hangs at Broadway, well, “because it’s where my wife goes.”
Smart man. Seriously though, want to know why Dan lives at the beach?
“So I can sea (see) level,” he claims. Get it? “There’s bathrooms, good lifeguards (I was a lifeguard on that beach for about a month many years ago) and there’s a place to get food.”
As you move east Patterson is where you’ll find the legendary Rusty Nail restaurant and bar. It’s a beach patrol hangout, boasts the coldest beer in town and is recommended for a visit.
Grant Street is home to the world famous Cape May Beach Patrol headquarters (but they don’t sell beach tags). Plenty of eye candy though. Then there’s Windsor, a favorite neighborhood beach.
“I’ve been coming to Windsor Beach since 1948, because, well, I’ve always lived on Windsor,” said Sandy Thomson, who relocated to Cape May in the 1990s after a career as a teacher.
Congress Street has been host to the fireworks display on July 4. It’s also the location of Congress Hall, which some consider the city’s “living room.” Congress Hall does things right and the personalized beach chair and towel service is a great example. If you’ve had the pleasure of staying at Congress Hall take advantage man, take advantage.
When you hit Perry Street, you’re in the thick of. This is the start of Steger’s Beach and it’s where you’ll find many of the young locals, including Kelsey Herchenrider, from Lower Township. You might find Kelsey with a large group of her friends right in front of the South End Surf Shop.
“I like hanging out with all my friends,” said Kelsey.
The Perry Street side of Steger’s is mainly high schoolers, it gets older as you move east and it’s been that way for a long time. Freshman might get to hang at Stegers, but they’re also probably going to get some lectures on taking care of their beaches and all that stuff.
“It’s a chill place,” said Sean Peterson. “All the good food places are there.”
Next up is Decatur Street, which is a magnificent spot. There are plenty of nearby restaurants and bars in case you need a break from the sun. Cabana’s, Carney’s, Martini Beach and the Fin Bar are all located just steps from the Decatur Street beach. It’s also a favorite spot for some of the twenty-something locals, like Megan Magill who can be found with a few of her close friends right in front of Cabana’s.
“You can see everything that’s going on from here,” said Megan. “You can see Beach Drive (actually, it’s Beach Avenue – but most locals refer to it as Beach Drive), you can see the Boardwalk. Plus you know when it’s time to head up for happy hour.”
If you’re wondering how to score one of those beach boxes or cabanas, call Steger’s Beach Service. They’ve got the franchise on those babies and the word on them is that they get passed down from generation to generation.
“Yeah, some of the names on those cabanas have been there a long time,” said Sandy Thomson.
Howard is the beginning of East Cape May. The shopping and bars are replaced by giant beachfront inns and houses. I think the beaches just don’t seem to get enough of the beach groomer’s attention out here, but families return to these beaches out here like the swallows to San Capistrano. East Cape May runs for a mile or so and includes Jefferson Street, Queen Street (say hi to local photographer Don Merwin), Madison, Philadelphia (get a hotdog at the little hotdog stand there. I guarantee it’s worth the price), Reading (Peter Shields Inn), Pittsburgh, (home to the La Mer Inn), Baltimore, Brooklyn and finally Poverty Beach at Wilmington.
Poverty Beach has a long history. Legend has it that in the old days the “help” frequented poverty beach. The entrance to the beach has changed a bit, but there are showers there now. Free parking is a plus and the crowd includes many people from the nearby neighborhood.
“I love Poverty,” said Samantha Lapp of North Cape May. “It’s quiet and there are no parking meters.”
From Higbee Beach to Poverty Beach, Cape May is a beach-lovers’ paradise. Pick the beach that suits you best and put your best suit on (swimsuit that is). Whether you’re interested in seeing friends, returning to a traditional spot, convenient food and beverage, solitude, or nearby shopping, there’s beach that’s just right for you in Cape May.